With the food industry requiring around 30% of total soil available on Earth and 20% of all fossil fuels consumed, the food that humans eat drastically impacts the environment. These environmental impacts include climate change, deforestation, decline of freshwater, eutrophication, and mass extinction. With an exponentially increasing human population, the future of Earth’s well-being will rely on the food that humans consume as well as the practices of growing and producing that food. With the food industry being a major contributor to environmental issues, human diet needs to be placed under the microscope of sustainability.
To begin, meat production is incredibly energy intensive, inefficient, and damaging to the environment. On average, the ratio of fossil fuel expenditure to protein output for meat production is approximately 25:1, with beef and lamb being 40:1 and 57:1, respectively (1). These ratios demonstrate the inefficiency of meat production. For reference, the grain protein production ratio is approximately 2.2:1 (1). This is problematic because meat and seafood are the two most rapidly growing ingredients in the global diet. Therefore, the increasing human population combined with an increasing meat diet proposes massive energy demand issues for the future. Not only does meat production demand an incredible amount of energy, but it contributes to many environmental issues across the world. “Livestock production is responsible for 70% of the Amazon deforestation in Latin America, where the rainforest has been cleared to create new pastures” (1). Even more importantly, one third of the world’s land suitable for growing crops are growing crops to feed farmed animals for humans to consume (1). The inefficiency of livestock production is magnified by using massive amounts of land and resources to feed the energy inefficient animals to then feed ourselves. Secondly, cows and sheep are responsible for 37% of all anthropogenic methane emissions (1). Methane is 25 times more effective of a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, so cow and sheep production greatly contributes to global warming. In addition, approximately 70% of all freshwater consumption on the planet is used for animal farming and agriculture (1). These facts demonstrate the amount of energy and resources humans are spending on meat production. However, there are alternatives for diets without meats that do not require nearly as many resources.
Reports have shown that switching to an organic, local, vegetarian or vegan diet drastically decrease one’s environmental footprint. The scientific paper “Evaluating the environmental impact of various dietary patterns combined with different food production systems” uses a standard LCA to analyze three different diet plans: omnivorous diet (OMNV), vegetarian diet (VEGET), and vegan diet (VEGAN), in conjunction with two different production methods: conventional farming (INT) and organic farming (BIO) (2). The report measured damages to human health, damages to ecosystem quality, and damages to resources. Figure 1 shows the impact assessment of the LCA.
Figure 1: LCA Impact Assessment Results
Omnivorous diets had the highest impact. Vegetarian diets the second lowest impact, and vegan diets had the least impact. In every case, organic farming methods resulted in a lower impact due to the non-use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers which contribute to eutrophication. Also important to note that the single most impactful piece of food on the environment was beef. Overall, this report demonstrates that humans can drastically reduce their environmental footprint by switching over to a vegan or vegetarian diet, as well as eating organically.
I believe we all need to find ways to work towards a sustainable future regarding every aspect of our life. In the coming years, resource demands for diets will greatly affect our entire Earth. It will affect the rate of climate change, ocean temperatures, species endangerment, deforestation, and our water supply. I know that most people are quite reluctant to change their diets, but I think this is a heavy enough issue that we should all find ways to reduce our impact such as simply eating less meat, especially beef, and eating organically.
Would you change your own diet for the sake of the Earth’s well being?
Do you think it is realistic or feasible for the world to shift towards a more balanced diet incorporating less meat?